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Activists on Screen

Will Coviello on the selections at the 8th annual New Orleans Human Rights Film Festival

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Patois New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival

April 13-17

Various locations

The Patois New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival (April 13-17) screens a series of documentary and feature films, and many are followed by Q&A sessions with directors or special guests. The major themes addressed in the festival are music and social change, food and environmental justice, and local topics, particularly focusing on civil rights. There are films from Poland, Turkey, Lebanon, New Orleans and elsewhere. Below are previews of several films. Visit for the schedule.

Hot Coffee

7 p.m. Wednesday

New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park

  When a jury awarded Stella Liebeck nearly $3 million in damages after she was burned by McDonald's coffee, it became a national punch line, and the terms "frivolous lawsuits" and "jackpot justice" entered the public lexicon. What many people don't know is Liebeck was scalded so badly she required multiple skin grafts. Many people also are unaware that big business seized upon the incident and successfully lobbied for laws restricting access to courts, placing caps on damages, and used huge funding advantages to help elect pro-business judges.

  Simply put, no one likes the idea of a frivolous lawsuit, but businesses typically deem every lawsuit against them as frivolous or excessive, whether it's a coffee spill or an oil spill. The most egregious case covered in Susan Saladoff's film is that of a 20-year-old Texas woman who was drugged and raped by co-workers while working for KBR (a Halliburton subsidiary) in Iraq. It took four years and Congressional action for her to get her case into a court of law. Hot Coffee takes a fascinating look at how ordinary Americans are getting burned by a court system increasingly tilted in the favor of the interests of large corporations. — Will Coviello

In the Land of the Free

7 p.m. Thursday

Warren Easton Senior High School, 3019 Canal St.

  Black Panther Party members Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for separate armed robberies when they were charged with the murder of a prison guard. It seems their political affiliations may have had more to do with the murder charges than evidence presented at trial. Both were convicted largely on testimony of jailhouse informants, although no witnesses claimed to see both men at the scene. Charges against another defendant were dropped when it was revealed he had been targeted because of his Black Panther membership. Woodfox and Wallace have spent most of the last four decades in solitary confinement, which brings up the issue of cruel and unusual punishment.

  Vadim Jean's documentary examines their murder convictions and the case of a third Angola inmate, Robert King, who also spent 30 years in solitary confinement. The narration by Samuel L. Jackson is heavy-handed, and there are irrelevant forays into topics like the Angola Prison Rodeo. But it's the facts of the case that matter, and it's difficult to believe their punishment relates to justice and not politics. — Coviello

Cafeteria Man

4 p.m. Sunday

Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.

  Would you eat your kid's school lunch? That's Tony Geraci's question in Richard Chisolm's Cafeteria Man, a narrative-free view of the food service director (and New Orleans native) who jumps through bureaucratic hoops — dealing with school system accountants, community meetings and Congress — aiming for a simple farm-to-table approach to Baltimore public school meals. The film follows his start-from-scratch overhaul — getting Maryland's farms, students and parents working to put fresh, healthy, local meals on 83,000 students' plates. Geraci comes off as the hero of an urgent how-to PSA for his program, which earn high-profile high fives from Michelle Obama and Michael Pollan.

  It opens with cafeteria workers poking lumpy mystery meat. The students say they want (and deserve) better. Kids from inner city schools squirm at raw oysters (and while examining a butchered pig, capture the moment on their cell phone cameras) but eventually they praise all things local and fresh. Cafeteria Man could lose some bureaucratic dialogue, but that adds to its humor: Simplicity in language (fresh, local, common sense) should trump miles of red tape. Geraci types a resignation letter, waiting for the moment he cracks. But two years later, he lands a 33-acre school farm, job training, school community mealtimes (where parents and kids eat fresh meals together after school), and, of course, healthy lunches. — Alex Woodward

Sons of Tennessee Williams

9 p.m. Sunday

New Orleans Museum of Art

  Before the 1969 Stonewall uprisings in New York City, there were four gay Carnival krewes in New Orleans, several of them legally chartered. That's not to say the groups had an easy time staging their masked balls. The fourth Krewe of Yuga ball was busted by police, and that contributed to its demise. But the krewes of Ganymede, Petronius, Amon-Ra and Armeinius cropped up, and the tradition of outrageously costumed tableau balls grew. Tim Wolff's documentary The Sons of Tennessee Williams has great still photos and footage from early balls, and he records preparations for the 40th anniversary ball of the Krewe of Armeinius in 2008. While the footage and the personal reminiscences from participants are both very entertaining and endearing, the film melds in the history of homophobia and the development of gay rights in New Orleans. It's a remarkable profile of men who braved homophobic violence and legal harassment to express themselves, and it sheds light on the way Mardi Gras keeps New Orleans from being like other places. — Coviello

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